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Teething troubles tell on session

- Poor homework, perceived apathy of junior ministers prompt govt to consider cut-short plan
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor with coal minister Piyush Goyal (right) outside Parliament on Tuesday. (PTI)

New Delhi, July 22: The Narendra Modi government is likely to truncate the ongoing Parliament session for want of a tangible legislative agenda blamed in part on inadequate preparedness by some ministers.

The session — the Modi administration’s first long-drawn one to pass the general and rail budgets, and discuss demand for grants — may be curtailed by a week or more, unless the government lines up adequate business to keep members engaged. It began on July 7 and was scheduled to continue until August 14.

Government sources cited several factors. One was the inability of parliamentary affairs minister M. Venkaiah Naidu and his deputies to fill the legislative calendar with to-do lists that consist of introduction and passage of bills, pending and prospective, and discussions.

The other reason was alleged indifference of some junior ministers including those “rewarded” with plum portfolios towards their seniors and the inability to set up the statutory House committees that are supposed to supplement Parliament’s work or act as the House’s “watchdogs” over the executive.

Till late this evening, Naidu kept his nose to the grindstone to set up four key committees: those on public accounts and public undertakings, privileges (Lok Sabha), rules (Lok Sabha) and welfare of SCs and STs.

The minister would not have had to run through a maze of rules to decide who would helm them because by rule and convention, the chairmanship of the public accounts panel goes to the largest Opposition party (the Congress in this case). The others are expected to be headed by the ruling BJP or one of its NDA allies.

The government has also been hampered by the absence of standing committees, formed soon after a new Lok Sabha comes into being. They come under the purview of ministries and departments, and are divided between the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha.

Their chairmanship and membership are determined by the number of MPs parties have. In the present House, the majority of the Lok Sabha committees will be headed by the BJP/NDA while those in the Rajya Sabha will go to the Congress/UPA.

The standing panels also vet the demands for grants of various ministries/departments related to the railway and the general budgets. This is done in the recess between the tabling of the budgets and their adoption.

After the reports of the standing committees are presented, the House goes to the next step of discussion and voting on the demands for grants, ministry-wise.

Although the Lok Sabha Speaker puts all outstanding demands to vote through a device called a “guillotine”, the lower House is empowered to approve or reject any, or even scale down grants sought by the government.

The Rajya Sabha confines itself to only a general discussion on the budget, without voting on the demands for grants.

So far, not a single standing committee has come up, although parties have sent Naidu the names of their nominees.

“He is overburdened,” a source said. Naidu is also urban development minister. But, as a Congress leader pointed out, this was nothing “unusual” because Naidu’s Congress predecessor Kamal Nath too held the two portfolios.

The first missteps on floor management were evident in the government’s goof-up on the Gaza debate. After initially saying such a discussion wasn’t needed, it agreed to the debate in the Rajya Sabha following a combined Opposition outcry.

The lack of co-ordination between external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and junior parliamentary affairs minister Prakash Javadekar on the issue underscored the government’s “vulnerability” in the upper House where it is in a minority, a source said.

Today, the boss of another junior minister, widely regarded as “diligent” and “conscientious”, reportedly felt let down when the deputy did not share the responsibility of answering questions in the House, leaving the senior to hold fort. Before that, it is learnt the junior had not turned up for a briefing from the senior.

Last evening, a harried Naidu pinned down his deputies, Javadekar and Santosh Gangwar, and directed them to start looking at the bills the government could possibly bring in.

At a meeting of the BJP’s parliamentary party today, Naidu pulled up the MPs who sauntered in after the appointed time of 9.30am and asked them to emulate Prime Minister Modi who, he stressed, had arrived 10 minutes earlier. The minister also told the MPs that nobody could travel abroad when the House was in session.

It seems the displeasure is particularly more with junior ministers, who were earlier BJP spokespersons, for skipping briefings when the government faced a controversy. It has now been decided that a list of leaders present and absent in such briefings would be sent to Modi.